“Decisions, Decisions,” by C.Y. Reid


Okay. Here goes, the first weekly terribleminds guest post — this one by C.Y. Reid, who would like to talk to you about his experiences writing a Choose Your Own Adventure Android app. Welcome him, and don’t hesitate to drop down into the comments section and ask the dude some questions. Please to enjoy.

Have you ever made a really difficult decision? One that’s plagued you for days on end, the resulting nervous state of emotional limbo never quite seeming to dissipate despite what you’re doing, where you are, or what’s doing its best to distract you? We’ve all been there, and it’s tough.

Now, I’m not talking about the stuff that holds a conventional sense of gravitas. One university or another. One car, one coffin, one career or another. I’m talking about the ridiculously bizarre decisions we fixate on to the point of generating our own internalised state of OCD. Which sandwich to have for lunch. Which bus to get. Which film to watch.

These decisions are what we agonise over more often than those with more serious consequences (though I’d argue that a bad sandwich is pretty serious), because they occur more often, and sometimes form part of an overall set of choices that define our lives. With choose-your-own-adventure writing, you’re not offering people constant, life-changing choices – you’re offering them the small beat-by-beat movements, occasionally punctuated by cliff-edge decisions, like how to fight a dragon, or how best to shut down your imagination while reading Chuck’s search term bingo posts.

It’s best to think of a choose-your-own-adventure novel like the roots of an old oak tree. You’re starting out from the trunk, the body of work that forms the basis for everything else – the world-fluff. Every smattering of nutrients you suck up through exploring the roots travels back up towards the surface, contributing to an ever-growing understanding of the world you’re exploring, page by page, in a far more direct and interactive way than you’re usually allowed to.

But each branching path can’t just be an obvious choice; a long, spiralling, weathered finger of wood with the resilience of aeons underground, or a short, dead stump. You have to make every single fork in the road matter just as much, and that means you can’t simply write sword-or-white-flag choices. A lot of recent videogames have featured choose-your-own-adventure elements, from Fable’s simplistic good-and-evil system to Mass Effect’s conversation wheel.

But the problem with these choices, and a lot of the choices I see in choose-your-own-adventure fiction is that they’re all based around an underlying theme of black-and-white morality. That theme is what is going to not only kill off half your pages, due to the fact that most readers will elect not to rape and pillage the townsfolk, rather than save and reassure them, but it’s also going to mean that the reader’s choices are simply a reflex.

Indecision generates fear, and I think that’s one of the reasons we get so stressed out about whether or not to dash to the duty-free just when our gate number is due at any moment. There’s that internal sensation of horror that pervades our decision, and I think by making people stop and think, you’re generating an adventure that means something to the reader.

Some storytellers think that they need an action beat every so many pages. But with this, every page in a choose-your-own-adventure tale is an action beat. Life isn’t a passenger experience, and if you’re offering someone a sense of interactivity within your fiction, you have to commit – half-arsing it just leaves them feeling like they’re playing within a sandbox, but you’re only letting them have the ambulance and the Tonka truck, rather than the Hot Wheels dream machines you’re dabbling with in the background.

If you want to write a choose-your-own-adventure novel (please do, it’s an art form that deserves more attention), I salute you, because as a writer, it’s brave of you. To hand one of the reins over to the reader and step back, knowing that they might only see less than a third of the pages you’ve written, perhaps never even reading through again to get a different ending, is bold. So be bold, and allow them to choose adventure.

C.Y. Reid is an SEO copywriter by day (boo, hiss, etc), and a passionate creative writer by night. He blogs at www.cyreid.com, tweets as @ReidFeed, and you can find Scoundrel’s Cross at this link.

12 comments

  • An excellent post on a genre of writing I have long held dear but never even imagined attempting to write.
    If I may ask, what are some choose your own adventures books/series/interactive fiction video games/etc. that you hold as particularly noteworthy? Preferably good noteworthy but I won’t quibble over something like that.

  • I’ve written a little CYOA before. It’s tricky. And you’re right, it’s tough knowing that most people will never read even half of what you’ve written. Tougher than I expected, anyway.

    So you’re writing an Android app, huh? No more hunting for the right page, that’s cool. Just curious, are you doing anything interactive with the app beyond adding hyperlinks?

  • In your experience, how have you gone about presenting decisions? How do you step away from the black/white morality and present a choice that doesn’t obviously scream right or wrong?

  • @Sparky Well, I’ve had a range over my lifetime, but my first was a child’s CYOA novel published during the Goosebumps craze. It’s still one of the scariest reads I’ve ever had, and that tension really does heighten your enjoyment of the novel – the pace issues tend to be ironed out largely by the genre alone.

    As for other sources – I’m a huge Mass Effect fan, and I enjoy any game that allows me to alter the narrative direction, from older RPGs (although Bioware is always going to hold court when it comes to how to do it properly within videogames) to those with a good/evil balance that’s not always reflected strongly in the story, but is certainly visually apparent (Fable, for example).

    @Brian There are also a range of apps on the Android Marketplace that even incorporate statistics, and that’s something I think is cool, but I find that too many choices in any given scene and you’re not really being given enough narrative given the time you’re investing in the app itself. I’d like to think our art helps set us apart from the competition.

    I’m lucky in the sense that I have Paul (the programmer and worldbuilder) as my director, so he’ll give me a rough idea of where we need to go, and lets me run with it as far as the base-level storytelling is concerned. When I start writing these myself, however, it’s certainly worth thinking about a more expansive range of features, from statistics to “last time, on CYOA: the series” flashbacks.

  • @ S_ Well, when we were planning Scoundrel’s Cross, we knew the first act was going to be more “setting the scene” than making decisions, and the second one’s definitely more decisive in terms of the reader’s impact on the rest of the story.

    I think with decisions, you can’t just offer the reader clichés, such as “this door or that door.” The way Paul wanted to offer decisions, I felt, was unique – to allow the player to influence the environment as well as the characters within it.

    In one example guards, the Scoundrel is hiding, and the reader can either make him slip on some stones, giving him away, or cause rocks to fall in the distance, distracting the guards and letting him escape. It’s been really fun to write for decision paths like this, because you’re allowing the reader to feel a lot more omnipotent than they usually would, and it helps maintain the balance between reader freedom and a structured, organised narrative.

    As for morality choices, I think black and white choices don’t exist in real life the majority of the time, and I think if you’re writing a realistic path, your choices are bound to reflect that. If someone’s been caught stealing, it shouldn’t simply be justice or the support of criminality. You have to build -around- your choice – the thief has a family, is dying, was contracted to steal and if you have him jailed you’ll lose a potential lead, but will be supporting theft at the same time.

    At the end of the day, you’ve got to make the choices succinct. You can’t write “allow the guard to live without a guarantee his mates won’t then batter you into next Wednesday.” It’s “let the guard live,” and allow the reader to think about the moral implications themselves, otherwise I find it might sound a little preachy. Hope this answers your questions.

  • I have to admit that I probably haven’t read a choose your own adventure book since I was a teenager and it sounds like they’ve come on a fair bit since then, but what I remember was a) liking them and b) being frustrated out of reading them because too many seemed to be less ‘choose your own adventure’ and more ‘search for the one ending that doesn’t involve you dieing messily’. I guess that’s probably what you were getting at with the branch analogy, or at least related. I suppose I wish there had been more endings or rather more endings that were actually endings rather than something ‘you die cos you suck’, endings where you succeeded in different ways or even at different things. Something like that anyway.

  • I devoured CYOA books as a child. I collected all I could find, including a few alternate brands like Nightmare Store and the Interplanetary Spy books. I recall several aborted attempts at writing my own, which yes included a lot of choices like: Go Left? Go Right? =)

    Glad to see you’re keeping to the art form. I’ll be checking out Scoundrel for sure.

  • I got it in my head when I was going to learn python a couple months back that I was going to write a text adventure game. It was going to be great, huge branching story paths, tons of choices, etc. My eyes were shiny with the promises of the future.

    I’ve come back down to earth since then, and refocused on, well, writing. Figure I’ll actually learn how to tell a good story with traditional methods before branching of into the wilds of CYOA and text adventure. But it’s good to see that CYOA has moved on since the last time I checked it out. Like Aiwevanya, I haven’t opened one since my teens.

    I’m looking forward to checking out Scoundrel’s Cross in depth. The opening section has been enjoyable.

  • @Aiwevanya I think that recently the concept of CYOA has primarily featured in videogames, as they’re offering a level of interactivity that appeals to the sort of mindset of those who love stories and freedom of choice.

    I do agree – a lot of them are essentially exercises in not dying, and there’s only one death scene in Scoundrel’s Cross, very early on. Even then, you are somewhat punishing the reader, and it’s definitely something to carry with me onto my next CYOA project.

  • As a kid, I would love R.L.Stine’s CYOA books. I forget the exact title of those. But they were fun and spooky.

    I love CYOA video games as well. I love Fable and I also love puzzle RPG’s where a puzzle can be solved in more than just one way, which is sort of like that. But I do agree, it’s a lot like, choose the path where you don’t die, but I’ve seen a few where it’s simply a different ending rather than a death scene.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds